teacher project

At Bedford Academy, a teacher rethinks English class using law school seminars

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force. 

Alesia Matthew can’t stand it when people don’t speak clearly.

Maybe it’s her southern roots, or the 11 years she spent working in the legal field, or the fact that, decades before she realized she wanted to teach, all of her summer jobs in high school and college involved working with children.

Whatever the reason, Matthew said, “When I’m going to say what’s in my mind, I go out of my way to make sure what I say is clear.”

Matthew says her background in law taught her to value clarity in all forms of communication, whether she’s giving instructions, writing a legal brief, or making an oral argument. When she started teaching, she was surprised to find that those skills also helped her engage students and sharpen their thinking. She now sees them as central to her ability to jump into teaching as a second career.

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Matthew always had her sights set on law. After earning her law degree from Ohio State University, she moved to Queens to work in the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense division.

Matthew loved the work, but kept getting antsy. She worked as a contract attorney for major New York law firms, then as a legal recruiter, then in the legal compliance division of an insurance company, but she didn’t feel like she was “making any kind of impact.”

Meanwhile, a school down the road from her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant caught her eye. In 2002, she got a job teaching legal studies at M.S. 258, a struggling neighborhood school that the city would close six years later. Rather than teaching a separate elective, Matthew said, she went into social studies classes and worked with all of the students in the school.

Matthew had no training in education, so she used with her high schoolers the only approach she knew: the Socratic method her law school professors had used.

That means “calling on them, asking open-ended questions,” she said. “These aren’t yes/no questions, these are more, ‘Why? OK, prove it. How are you going to support that? OK, let me play devil’s advocate.’ My classes have always been in these discussions.”

She continued to use that approach the next year, when her assistant principal, Adofo Muhammad, asked her to teach English. She later followed Muhammad to M.S. 143 and then, after a brief stint at M.S. 571, to Bedford Academy.

Matthew said that argument was the focus of her English classes even before the Common Core learning standards were formally introduced. Based on her experience in law school, she decided that the best way to help students learn to make arguments and support them was by going through the process over and over again.

This January, after reading Plato’s “Apology,” “Crito,” and “Allegory of the Cave” with her AP Language and Composition class, she asked them to respond to the question, Do societies exercise mind control over their citizens?

By that point in the year, Matthew said, her students were familiar with the process: Develop a claim, use direct textual evidence to prove the claim, and then analyze and discuss how that evidence proves the claim. Then ask, based on that argument, what is a possible counter-claim?

She said that once students got the hang of the process, they started coming up with counterclaims that others might not see. “That’s where the creativity comes in,” she said.

Now, as the school’s lead English teacher, Matthew is focused on coming up with ways to help students to think for themselves. Given her roundabout path into teaching, its a role she’s now comfortable with, she said, recalling a recent run-in with an old student who said she was the teacher who had “made her think the most.”

“That solidified it for me—this is what you’re supposed to do,” Matthew said. “Most students I have had say to me, you made me think. And you were easy to understand.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede